Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Free Fall by Robert Crais

Title: Free Fall
Author: Robert Crais
Publisher: Bantam Books (1993)

I'm posting from the road this week as The Great SoCal Ballpark Road Trip continues. Ballpark Road Trips are a staple of my travels but I've not once ended one at a celebration of books. So in excitement of a week ending at the L.A. Times Festival of Books (featuring tons of authors, including the estimable Robert Crais), Michael and I are serving up a joint post this month that may surprise you. You'll want to surf on over to It Rains... You Get Wet  for a Free Fall film review.

Free Fall is the fourth novel to feature the World's Greatest Detective, Elvis Cole. Adding to his body of work starring Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert Crais continues to defy conventions, such as the emotionally unapproachable PI, and expectations of employment, such as payment.

That Crais.

Our story begins when a nervous client seeks Cole's help in discovering the source of her fiance's anxiety. Quite literally, that sentence sums up our scenario. Of course, things get complicated pretty quickly. The fiance is a cop and he shows up soon after the client leaves (not so pleasantly drunk partner in tow) giving excuses for his anxiety. Despite the excuses, Cole does his job and digs deeper. It appears the explanation is infidelity but our plucky client - in what I think is a mighty hilarious scene - doesn't accept that explanation. The plot thickens, Pike is called, cue the World's Greatest in action.

****some comments below contain mild spoilers****

Right out of the gate, we've got the Cole we've come to love: Irreverent, persistent, susceptible to sob stories in pleasant packages, adroit at B&E, incurable romantic, etc. (And when he describes how people are acting he says things like "She clutched the purse even tighter and gave miserable." I enjoy that "gave" business.) However, around the first turn it becomes clear that there's a seriousness to this story which invites a closer analysis of the story and its outcome.

Free Fall is very much informed by the tragedy of the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots that followed the trial. Several times while reading I got the impression that this was a vehicle for RC to express his idea of a more just outcome for despicable people who do despicable things. Whether this is true or not, he certainly was able to present a story that incorporates the complicated and touchy issues of duty, loyalty, redemption, forgiveness and retribution. (On a personal note, I wasn't satisfied with the book's outcome but that's not really the point of this post.)

In the midst of a topic as huge as this, RC keeps his main characters true to form. I actually had to set the book down for a few minutes just to get a good laugh out during the scene where Cole is being questioned after he and Pike are arrested.

Micelli leaned forward across the table and gave me hard. "You're holding out for nothing. Your buddy's already come clean."
Micelli nodded. ...
I gave them the laugh.

I can't imagine Cole was laughing even remotely as hard as I was. And it's not just that Pike wouldn't do this, it's that RC is so damn good at writing the character he's created in Pike.

"That makes it, what, ten or twelve blocks from here? Might as well be in Fresno."
Pike said, "If we have limits, they are self-imposed." Always count on Pike for something like that.

Or like this:

I had left the Farmer's Market before Pike, and I had made good time, but when I got home there he was, as if he had been there for hours, as if he had been here and there at the same time...
I said, "How'd you beat me?"
Pike put down the cat. "I didn't know it was a race." You see how he is?"

And this isn't even going into RC's wonderful use of "whir" as a way to get us to understand the physicality of Pike. It's Cole's head I prefer to be in but as a person who appreciates the creation of a pitch perfect character, it's Pike who makes my mind salivate with imagination-envy.

The supporting characters were interesting, however, I found them more representative than fully-realized. This was one of the things that gave me the impression that this was RC trying to say something specific (along with Chapters 17 and 18). No matter how much I might have enjoyed a secondary character I never lost the feeling that they were an expression of a perspective rather than a natural part of the story. This didn't affect my enjoyment of the book, but it was something I never lost my awareness of.

I enjoy RC's work so much that I tend to focus on what I enjoy but there are a couple things that I don't like so here's my short list. I'm always curious about what other fans think of my quibbles.

1. Lack of distinction between the dialogue of different characters. Stylistically, I often can't tell the difference between characters when they speak.

2. It irks me when only certain groups of people speak in dialect. If dialects are going to be used as descriptor "tags" then every character should be in dialect.

3. Crais relentlessly marks the "other" which relentlessly assumes a "default." This is, by far, the thing that bothers me the most when I'm reading.

Free Fall isn't at the top of the list of my favorite Cole/Pike novels but there is quite a bit to enjoy here. Its ambitious paralleling of real world events gives it a depth that kept me turning over scenes and issues in my mind for the length of the book, and any book that gets you thinking that much is worth a read. And, as always, Cole and Pike are irresistible to anyone looking to follow a couple great characters as they solve a mystery.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Links to previous joint posts:


  1. It's been so long since I read this but I remember two things: 1) it was nominated for an Edgar and 2) part of the story took place in my old stomping grounds around Edwards AFB - Lancaster, I think.

    I laughed with that quote as well about Pike spilling his guts to the cops. ;)

    Looking forward to meeting you at the Festival of Books, Rachel! Thanks for this!

  2. Me, too, Christine! See you soon!

  3. As usual, another fine book review, Rachel. And you nailed why Crais is so good at writing the familiar (the L.A.-based private detective) and making it unique and accessible. I agree with you, too, this one was vehicle for the author, in the wake of the tragedy you cite, to work through some aspects and perceptions that followed -- he did similar with SUNSET EXPRESS and the O.J. trial. Ah... the 90s.

    So glad you mentioned that restaurant scene, Rachel! I love that for Elvis' reactions and everyone else's. If there's one scene I'd like to see filmed from the book, this one is it. The Micelli interview, too, was a blast because RC remains true to those characters and produces some welcome intake by loyal readers.

    With regard to your quibbles:
    1. Good point. If you listen to the audiobook, however, the audio production (w/ the narrator's skill) makes it much easier to distinguish.
    2. True. We take it for granted when those of the same converse that there isn't one. But, there's always a dialect in play.
    3. I'm not understanding what you're saying (my own denseness, not yours). Please help.

    I agree it's not L.A. Requiem, but there's an entertaining but serious level here in FF that makes it underrated in my book. Thanks so much, Rachel.

  4. Thanks, Michael! With you as my posting partner I always have to try to show up with the A game. :)

    I didn't get as much of a "vehicle" vibe from SE as I did from this one, I guess I'll have to do a re-read. Oh darn...

    Re 3. hahahahaha, never underestimate the depths of my denseness! However, I think I can explain what I mean as it's something I think about a lot. (I'm only addressing American books here but I think the concept applies to many types of media from many cultures.)

    When I'm reading through a book and I see the following as descriptions:


    But I never see:


    Then the text is creating a default. When white males are around they are described as:


    This automatically creates a situation in which, as a reader, it becomes obvious that I am supposed to assume everyone is a white male until I am told otherwise. This annoys the shit out of me and I find it to be lazy writing. Either go whole hog on the laziness and give everyone their ethnicity/race/gender tag (including white males) or do the better thing and describe people as the people they are which will allow them to come through in the text.

    I recently read a book that did this fantastically. In this case, it was sexual orientation that was varied between the characters and no one got a heterosexual tag or a homosexual tag but it was clear from actions and life choices who people were (and, no, there were no explicit scenes that would make it clear due to intimate relationships).

    Sorry I was so slow to reply to this but, well, you know what I've been up to lately. :)